The World's Most Famous Paintings

Published 1 year ago on January 21, 2019
By Hugo

Art is an artistic realm that divides opinion. To some, art offers us an insight into the work of some of the greatest minds the world has ever known. To many others, it is an overblown, esoteric nightmare, littered with pretension and needless ambiguity. 

However, the world's best paintings are lauded for their distinction as standout works in an incredibly competitive field. Picasso famously said that every child is born an artist, but added that only a select few hone their craft into adulthood. 

In recognition of these wise words, we thought we'd indulge you in an exhibition of our own by showcasing 30 of the most famous paintings in the world, ranging from the works of Picasso himself to a picture that has even the biggest of philistines rushing through the doors. 

30. The Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli's masterpiece depicts the rise of the Goddess Venus from the sea, crowned in all her majestic glory with scintillating brushwork and vivid color.

The most impressive facet of this extraordinary piece of art is the face of Goddess Venus herself. While shy in nature, Botticelli's illuminating colors brings her out of her shell and into the eyes of thousands of admirers that visit Florence’s Uffizi Gallery each year.

29. Dogs playing poker- C.M. Coolidge

C.M. Coolidge painted 16 images of anthropomorphic dogs sitting around a table playing a game of poker at the turn of the 20th century. While humorous and unusual, this 1903 painting is a representation of everyday Americans playing cards in the 19th century.

This depiction has since become iconic, and the collections of paintings, others of which were commissioned to sell cigars, have since been immortalized in various television shows and movies. In 2015, Coolidge's painting, Poker Game, sold for a cool $658,000 at a Sotheby's auction.

28. Portrait of Madame Recamier- Jacques Louis David

Wikimedia/Jacques-Louis David

Here we see Juliette Recamier lying on a custom sofa as her white dress showcases her bare arms. One of the most famous paintings of neoclassical fashion, the prized piece by Jacques Louis David is housed in the Louvre.

The subject of the painting is of the Parisian socialite Juliette Récamier, whose Parisian salon played host to some of the greatest political and literary minds of the 19th century. So sought after was she for her beauty and charm, many attempted to woo her with their love and affection, none more so than the Prince Agustus of Prussia. But even his attempts at a proposal proved futile.

27. The Son Of Man- Rene Magritte

The Son of Man certainly plays into the more ambiguous facets of artistic expression. Painted by Rene Magritte, the work depicts himself in a black suit with an apple covering his face. Explaining the meaning of his most well-known work, the Belgian surrealist said,

"The apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It's something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present."

26. Royal Red and Blue- Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko's painting is another that might attract a few chuckles from art skeptics owing to its perceived simplicity. Despite what the cynics may say, the abstract expressionist sold his famous work for $75.1m at a Sotheby's auction in November 2012.

Mark Rothko is considered one of the foremost artists of the abstract expressionist movement, a realm of post-WWII art that is regarded as the first specifically American movement to garner international acclaim.

25. Massacre of the Innocents-  Peter Paul Rubens

Depicting the biblical slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem, Peter Paul Rubens's painting catches our imaginations with a compelling reimagining of the Gospel of Matthew.

For those unaware of the background to this iconic painting, the Gospel of Matthew proclaims that Herod the Great ordered the execution of all male children under 2-years-old as a sacrifice to God though scholars of the period have mostly rejected Mathew's version of events. 

24. La Moulin de la Galette- Renoir

Translated to “Pastry Chef”, this glowing, febrile depiction of city life is Renoir's standout work and also one of the most expensive paintings ever bought when it auctioned for $78m to a Japanese collector called Ryoei Saito.

Along with Van Goth's Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which Saito also owned, the Japanese collector set a then-record for owning the two most expensive paintings in the world. But Saito would cause controversy when he threatened to cremate both paintings with him when he died before running into financial difficulties and later selling them to an unknown buyer.

23. Whistler’s Mother - James McNeill Whistler

Whistler's masterpiece, also known as “Arrangement in Grey and Black. The Artist’s Mother,” is considered one of the most significant American artworks of all time. 

The painting shows the artist's mother resting on a chair against a dingy, neutral grey wall, a shade synonymous with the artist's work. 

22.  Cafe Terrace at Night - Vincent Van Goth

Vincent Van Gogh's starry painting paints a picturesque scene of alfrescodiners enjoying themselves outside a cafe on a hot summer's night. The Dutch artist painted the piece, which is also referred to as Coffeehouse in the Evening, in the quaint French town of Arles in 1888.  After finishing Café Terrace at Night, Van Gogh expressed his joy with the finished product in a famous letter.

"I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree.

Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.

He finishes the letter by waxing lyrical of the night sky:

"You never told me if you had read Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-ami, and what you now think of his talent in general. I say this because the beginning of Bel-ami is precisely the description of a starry night in Paris, with the lighted cafés of the boulevard, and it’s something like the same subject that I’ve painted just now

21. The Kiss- Gustav Klimt

One of the first paintings to spawn from the Art Nouveau style, this bright painting sees gold leaf cover the background in a picture renowned as much for its style as for the image it depicts.

Painted by Gustav Klimt, love and intimacy are prevalent themes in the majority of the Austrian symbolist's work. The Kiss is housed at Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in the Belvedere Palace, Vienna.

20. No.5, 1948- Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock's abstract magnum opus represents the chaos erupting within Pollock at the time it was being painted. Look closely and you'll notice the swirls and meshes are deliberately made to stand out to further emphasize the raging ennui and emptiness Pollock felt on a daily basis.

It may come as little surprise to find out that Pollock's masterpiece is one of the most expensive paintings ever sold by an American artist following its $140 million sale.

19. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte-  Georges Seurat

This painting does well to encapsulate the lazy Sunday we all know and love with color and gusto befitting of the many masterpieces that came before it.

One of Seurat's best examples of pointillism, a form of art comprised of many dots joined together; you can find this charming piece in the Art Institute of Chicago.

18. The Flower Carrier- Deigo Rivera

YouTube/ Maura Romero

One of Mexico's most revered painters of the 20th century, Diego Rivera's painting of a person attempting to carry a large flower basket on his back is housed at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art.

The bright colors deployed in the picture would come to be a defining feature of Rivera's work, who was famed for his mural paintings and tumultuous relationship with fellow Mexican artist, Frida Khalo.

17. Portrait of Dora Maar- Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is a name synonymous with the art world and a name that conjures up the often overused word, "genuis." But such a superlative isn't wasted on the late Spanish painter. The founder of the famous art movement, Cubism, a style of art that shows the same picture from different angles, the picture above is believed to depict his lover, the French, painter. poet and photographer, Dora Maar.

Painted from a variety of different angles, the Portrait of Dora Maar would mark Picasso's first foray into a style of painting we now know as cubist. 

16. Portrait de L’Artiste Sans Barbe- Vincent Van Goth

Here we see one of the many classics from the acclaimed Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh. With a distinguished oeuvre matched by few other painters, one of the idiosyncratic painter's most exciting pieces is a self-portrait without his signature beard. 

While it is by no means Van Gogh's most famous work, it was one of the few pieces to be sold in a private auction, with the winning bid coming in at $71.5 million.

15. Campbell's Soup Cans- Andy Warhol

A visionary genius, Andy Warhol's work attracts global acclaim, and it was his simplistic Campbell’s Soup Cans painting that confirmed his status as an icon. In a series of famous paintings painted entirely by hand, and incorporating the use of stencils, each can, despite the naked eye saying otherwise, is actually different.

The can's comprise of the 32 flavors that Campbell offered in their 1962 range. Whilst this may seem like an unremarkable topic of interest, for a forward-thinking pop artist such as Warhol, he saw the increased reliance on mass production as a sign that society would become less reliant on self-image and more inclined to follow vogue trends, leading to a more depersonalized and homogenous society.

He wasn't wrong. 

14. Nighthawks- Edward Hopper

Another classic American painting of the 20th Century, Hopper's mellow snapshot of 1940s American culture is believed to be a pastiche of Van Gogh’s Terrace Café at Night. But unlike the social atmosphere depicted in the latter, Nighthawks carries a visceral feeling of isolation typically prevalent in the bigger cities. 

The neutral colors deployed on the outside make for a sharp contrast to the warm-colored interior that offers a reprieve from the hollowness experience outside. Hopper also leaves many questions unanswered. Does the lone man at the bar representat man's propensity to cave in on themselves as the years go by?

And what about the couple? Did they arrive together? Are they a couple taking on the big bad world together? The sheer mystery of this makes for a truly compelling painting. 

13. School of Athens- Raphael

While the Vatican's premier draw, artistically speaking at least, remains the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s murals tend to go under the radar, but to art lovers, these extensive works are held in equally high regard. Approved by Pope Julius II, the celebrated works were intended to serve the suite of his apartments. However, The School of Athens, the most famous of all, decorates the wall of the Stanza della Segnatura after Raphael was ordered to Rome by the Pope.

In it, we see a coterie of important people, namely philosophers of the ancient classical world discussing and debating the issues of their time. But these weren't just any old scholars. Raphael depicted the meditations of Aristotle and Plato, two philosophers who shaped Western thinking. Pythagoras, the brainchild of Pythagoras theorem, is seen on the left solving out a mathematics puzzle while Raphael’s self-portrait can be spotted in the right-hand corner.

12. The Great Wave off Kanagawa - Katsushika Hokusai

Such is the domination of European art on global culture that the majority of this list is made up of European masters. However, Hokusai's Great Wave has managed to permeate through this Western bias and become an icon of his nation as well.

A woodblock print of an enormous wave threatening fishing boats, it shows the prefecture of Kanagawa with the famous Mount Fuji in the background. Using a new ink for the water, the blues remain very vivid, but the yellows and other colors are from vegetable dyes and so have faded over time. There are impressions of the print are in many Western collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and in Claude Monet's house in Giverny, France, among many other collections but some have had to be put into indefinite storage due to conservation reasons

11. American Gothic - Grant Wood

Currently, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, this is one of the most familiar images in 20th-century American art and has been widely parodied in American popular culture. Being driven around Iowa in 1930, Wood saw the house in Eldon and decided to paint it, and the people he fancied would live there.

Often now seen as an iconic depiction of the American Midwest, it is considered an authentically American scene and as such has become part of the national psyche down the years.

10. Guernica - Pablo Picasso

Picasso's 1937 painting Guernica is about the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, by German warplanes at the instigation of the Spanish Nationalists, who won the civil war in 1937 and ruled Spain for the next 36 years.

Now on display at the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, it was this piece that brought global attention to the Spanish civil war, such was the jarring, violent and disjointed feel that it inspired.

9. Water Lilies - Claude Monet

A series of around 250 oil paintings by Claude Monet, the inspiration for them was Monet's own garden as he peered out onto the flora and recreated them on canvas. Gloriously simple to the untrained eye, the technical difficulty of the piece is what elevates it to such a high status in the art world.

The blending and blurry nature of the series is thought to be down to the fact that Monet suffered from cataracts at the time he created them, which was in the last 30 years of his life. Separate pieces from the series can be found in major collections across the globe.

8. The Nightwatch - Rembrandt Van Rijn

Officially titled Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq but known more commonly as The Nightwatch,  this painting depicts a company moving out and is notable for its massive size and effective use of low night light.

One of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings, it has layers of meaning and representation in it and is in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum but is prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best-known painting in its collection.

7. Girl With A Pearl Earring - Johannes Vermeer

Depicting a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and an improbably large pearl earring, the 17th-century painting is noted for its subtle coloration, enhanced by the piercingly dark background, alongside the complex and mysterious look of the subject.

Permeating throughout pop-culture, recent novels and films have focussed on the creation of the piece whilst contemporary street artist Banksy has parodied the piece. The painting has been in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague since 1902.

6. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Surrealist imagery of melting clocks on a beach scene, this was said to be inspired by Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity supposedly revolves around the significance of time in one's life. Dali often played with the concept of 'softness' and hardness,' and the melting watches play with the notion of a fixed order as they begin to collapse.

The ants also signal decay while the strange monster-like being is a representation of Dali himself, possibly in a dream state. The look of the watches came from a surrealist perception of Camembert melting in the sun.

5. The Scream - Edvard Munch

Wikipedia/ Edvard Munch

Like all your best kindergarten creations, this masterpiece uses pastels, paints, and cardboard to create its eerie, layered effects as in the foreground; a character is wrought with unmitigated distress for unknown reasons.

The Norwegian artist created four versions of this piece in various media with The National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, holding one of two painted versions, The Munch Museum holding the other painted version and a pastel version from 1893 whilst the fourth is owned by a private collector.

4. The Creation of Adam - Leonardo Da Vinci

Many historians and scholars regard Leonardo as the prime exemplar of the "Universal Genius" or "Renaissance Man", an individual of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination" as he was a keen inventor, painter, sculptor, architect and science amongst other things. One of the prime examples of his genius is 'The Creation of Adam' fresco that adorns the ceiling ofSistinestine Chapel in The Vatican.

The image of the near-touching hands of God and Adam has become iconic of humanity and supposedly signifies the spark of life provided by the divine whilst the mirroring poses represent the biblical belief that humanity was created in God's image.

3. The Last Supper- Leonardo Da Vinci

Wikipedia/ Leonardo Da Vinci

Another biblical scene from Leonardo, this one sitting on the dining hall wall of the Santa Maria Delle Grazie in the city of Milan. One of the most famous depictions of Christ, it shows Jesus and his twelve disciples eating their last meal together before the crucifixion of Christ.

Supposedly showing the consternation amongst the disciples after Jesus announced one would betray him, with an array of reactions and emotion. Sadly, little of the original painting remains despite several restoration attempts.

2. Starry Night - Vincent Van Gough

Now considered a master, Van Gough only sold one painting in his lifetime as his style was scolded for not being realistic enough. Now, the way he picked out light and swirled his patterns is lauded for its inventive and creative visions of his surroundings.

Starry night is the most visually unique of this effect as it shows the night sky over a quaint village in Saint Remy. It has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1941

1. Mona Lisa - Leonardo Da Vinci

Arguably the most famous piece of art in the world, the Mona Lisa has captured people's attention with her piercing brown eyes and enigmatic half-smile that suggests a mischievous side to the model sitting for the portrait.

Many would argue that a price could not be put on such a masterpiece but in 1962 the Louvre, the French museum where it currently hangs, insured it for $100m USD. By today's prices that equates to around $700m USD thus making it, by far, the most expensive painting in the world.

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